Behind the Scenes at the San Francisco Symphony

Editor's note: This past Wednesday, the San Francisco Symphony musicians went on strike due to Symphony Management stalling on negotiations and its lack of transparency regarding Symphony finances. After months of negotiations and performing without a contract for almost six months, the musicians asked Management to open its financial books in an attempt to reach a fair agreement, which Management refused to do. However, musicians hope a deal will be reached by March 19, when the Symphony is scheduled for a planned East Coast tour, including performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

For nearly two decades, world-class timpanist David Herbert has been a staple in the highly acclaimed San Francisco Symphony. He is widely considered the “leader of cutting –edge solo timpani repertoire,” and has toured all over the world with premiere musicians and as a soloist. But next season, due to the inability and unwillingness of San Francisco Symphony Management to communicate with musicians about the allocation of millions of dollars in funds, Herbert will be leaving San Francisco to join the Chicago Symphony, where according to Herbert, management has been nothing less than completely transparent.


For eighteen years, I have had the incredible opportunity and privilege to serve as Principal Timpani of the San Francisco Symphony. These years have been the best years of my musical life. As a member of this world class orchestra I have shared with my colleagues the honor of winning multiple Grammy Awards. We have benefited from daring and visionary projects brought to life under the leadership of our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, and we have had the enduring support of our great audience, a strong donor base, and a generous and enthusiastic Board of Governors.

Unfortunately there has grown, over time, a cultural disconnect between the San Francisco Symphony Management and the musicians of the orchestra who make the music come to life. The increased divide between my colleagues’ service to the music and the failure of the San Francisco Symphony Management to recognize such commitment has been disheartening.

In contrast, the Management of the Chicago Symphony has worked and committed resources to growing a culture and philosophy that puts the music and the musician first. They are making that fact very clear by their commitment to me economically and artistically. As a result, my ongoing pursuit of excellence as Principal Timpani of that great orchestra will be allowed to flourish.

The work ethic required from every member of the orchestra is enormous and our practice away from the stage is integral to that excellence. Every musician in the San Francisco Symphony spends at least as much time in our personal practice and preparation as we spend with our colleagues in rehearsal and concerts. As Principal Tympani, the arrangements, organization and support needed to arrange on site access to instruments and space in which to practice is a necessity. The management of the Chicago Symphony has recognized this as a given and have done nothing to impede my abilities to perform at the absolute highest level by offering ease and unrestricted access to instruments and consistently reliable space in which to practice at Orchestra Hall.

Again, in sad contrast this has not been the case with the Management of the San Francisco Symphony. While I have had support and as much encouragement from our stage technicians as they could provide under difficult conditions, I have had no cooperation from our management and instead have encountered only a negative attitude with little or no attempts at problem solving. This has exacerbated an already impossibly challenging and unmanageable workplace. I was eventually forced to rent, at my own expense, practice space at another location and to purchase additional instruments.

I will always admire and respect the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, but as an artist and as an employee I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience.